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National Security Leaks in Washington; Documenting the War in Syria

Aired August 15, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. This week we're looking back at some of the top stories and interviews that we covered over the past few months, especially those that still dominate the headlines right now.

And we want to update you on these stories and on the people who remain at the heart of major world events.

In a moment, two powerful conversations with two courageous professionals who are documenting the brutality in Syria. But first, the controversy that continues in Washington over national security leaks. Investigators are chasing the source of a series of disclosures, details of America's drone program and of a cyber-war attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The man at the center of this firestorm is David Sanger. In his book, "Confront and Conceal," he reported these stories. And I asked him, back when the book came out, about the most surprising things that he learned in the course of his research.


AMANPOUR: Welcome, David.


AMANPOUR: Good to see you again.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when you were researching for this book?

SANGER: I think that there were two big surprises about President Obama as commander in chief.

Many who worked for him, many who were career diplomats or career military, tell me they were surprised at his aggressiveness, that they had not expected this from somebody who had very little foreign policy experience, who was frequently derided during the 2008 campaign as a former community organizer, which was sort of code word for is this person ready to be commander in chief.

What emerged was an Obama doctrine, and the doctrine that has come out of this is that he's very willing to use unilateral force when the direct interests of the United States are at stake -- think of the bin Laden raid and so forth.

AMANPOUR: Exactly, and all these drone strikes beyond bin Laden and also what you focused on, and really which is the big controversy of the book, and that's the cyber-war against Iran.

SANGER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: In other words, as some are saying, the United States is at war with Iran. How effective is this cyber-war?

SANGER: Well, the main revelation that you're referring to concerns Olympic Games that you mentioned at the beginning, which was a four-year- long program.

We believe it continues to this day, begun in the Bush administration, handed off to President Obama in a quiet meeting between him and President Bush, just days before the inauguration in 2009, when President Bush said, look, there are two programs you're going to want to hold onto. One of them is drones, the other is Olympic Games.

Olympic Games is an effort to get into the Iranian centrifuge system with a computer worm that was a very elaborate effort to get through the defenses the Iranians had built up, and then to go map a blueprint of how the computers inside Natanz connect to the centrifuges, send in a worm that would speed up or slow down those centrifuges until they begin to blow up. And --


AMANPOUR: And affect enrichment.

SANGER: -- and affect enrichment by taking out the centrifuges.

AMANPOUR: Is it still happening?

SANGER: You know, very hard to know what is happening today. Once it became obvious to the Iranians -- and it took them a few years to catch onto what was going on -- presumably they put in some pretty good defenses.

But, you know, cyber-war, like all war, evolves, and there are new approaches the United States and Israel, who work together very closely on this, are no doubt using today.

AMANPOUR: Do you think cyber-war is a alternative, a replacement for real war, as -- I mean, I don't ask that in a vacuum. People think maybe Israel will bomb Iran's facilities.

SANGER: You know, one of the big objectives of Olympic Games for the Americans was to so wrap the Israelis into the process that they would become convinced that there was a more effective and deniable way to affect the enrichment at Natanz and would make bombing it unnecessary. And, in fact, some argue that -- the CIA estimates are that this set back the Iranians 18 months to two years.

Some believe that's over-optimistic, but in any case, when you think, Christiane, about what you and I have talked about, what the estimates are of what a military strike could accomplish, 18 months to two years is about the number you hear.

AMANPOUR: You said deniable, and you know there are certainly people who are pretty angry that this information is being leaked, and that you've got it, and it's in "The Times" and it's in your book. They're saying that this puts American operations and American lives at risk. And, you know, Senator McCain has called for a special council. The FBI is already looking into it.

You were leaked to?

SANGER: This was an 18-month-long investigation for a book that started at the ground level up and built its way up. But what was the major disclosure here? It wasn't anything that anybody said to anyone. It was the error in 2010, in the summer, that allowed the worm that later became known as Stuxnet to escape from the Natanz plant and propagate out across the Internet.

The United States and the Israelis had not planned on that happening. That was a programming mistake. It made the worm evident to the whole wide world. And in fact, we reported in 2011, early 2011, that it seemed likely this was American and Israeli working together.

What this book does is pull on that string of Stuxnet and just fill in the details of how and who -- how it was done and who did it.

AMANPOUR: But you, obviously, in your book, quote people from the Situation Room. So they are telling you about this stuff.

SANGER: I certainly heard a lot from a number of different sources -- and just as you would in the same situation, I'm not going to discuss the sourcing for this. But --

AMANPOUR: Are you worried about the probe?

SANGER: You know, there are always leak probes and I understand why governments have to go do them.

But I also think that there was a very important policy issue that we were airing here, which is that the United States, Israel, others are beginning to use a new weapon of war.

AMANPOUR: So let's ask, not just about cyber-weapons, but other things that you've been talking about. You also brought up, certainly in an article and in your book, also, about Afghanistan and Pakistan. This whole drone policy is also having a backlash, a blowback on vital alliances, for instance, in Pakistan.

SANGER: That's right. I mean, the United States, for years, has said that they don't want to deal just with the military side of Pakistan. They want to build up a legitimate, democratically elected Pakistani government.

Well, what did that democratically elected parliament do about a month and a half ago? They passed a resolution banning all foreign drone flights into their territory. And since that time -- I've lost count -- but there have been a lot of --


SANGER: -- U.S. drone strikes, including a very successful one.

So we have a tension in our own American policy in dealing with Pakistan, and that is between supporting a democratically elected government and respecting their boundaries, and the need to go pursue a war against Al Qaeda on their territory.

AMANPOUR: When I asked the question leading into, is this foreign policy now warfare by remote control, and what will it do to America's long-term prospects for leadership and influence, let's just take Afghanistan, where you talked about Afghan good enough, and where we see a light footprint is the goal right now --

SANGER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: -- no matter how much they talk about an enduring presence, we know that it's not going to be very strong. You said that you worry that pulling out and relying on the sort of light footprint or drone or whatever from the air, could actually reverse the last 10 years of war effort in Afghanistan, could bring the Taliban back.

SANGER: Well, it could be the Taliban's going to come back no matter what, and that seems clear, and I think President Obama has read the American public accurately on this, that after 10 years, I think the American public is pretty tired of foreign occupations, OK --

AMANPOUR: That's true, but the effectiveness of the policy --

SANGER: -- but the effectiveness of the policy may be limited. I mean, with a light footprint policy, you're -- it's very effective in going after individual terrorists. We've learned that. On the cyber end, it may be effective at going after groups of centrifuges.

What it can't do is what we all thought counterinsurgency might be able to do, which is make a population feel secure, build up government institutions. You can't do that by remote control. And so we have changed our approach in a very deep way, and you have to understand that, if you do that, you've got a policy with severe limits. And we need to discuss what those limits are.

AMANPOUR: So it seems to me, from reading your book, parts of it, reading the articles and things, that this is a foreign policy that relies on the White House and the CIA and the Special Ops if it -- the Pentagon at all.

The traditional State Department and the traditional warfighting machine, the generals and the Pentagon, they're kind of to the side.

SANGER: A little bit, and you know, one of the things I worry about on the remote control war side is that one of the reasons that Hillary Clinton supported having a surge in Afghanistan of 30,000 troops -- she actually argued for 40,000, you learn in "Confront and Conceal" -- was that she wanted to be able to come in behind them with a civilian core to help rebuild Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: And that never happened.

SANGER: You don't hear that discussed.

AMANPOUR: And it's clearly relatively cheap, relatively easy and definitely politically pain-free to do this electronic, cyber, drone kind of warfare.

SANGER: It is, and it's easy not to discuss because those programs are classified, so there's an easy way to sort of hide behind it.

Now in the drone program, because we all see drone attacks happen and, you know, you understand what's happening, there has begun to be, in this administration, a discussion of the legal justification behind drones. And you may be persuaded by it or you may not be, but at least there's a discussion.

In cyber, we haven't had that yet, because the United States has never yet acknowledged -- hasn't to this day -- using cyber-weapons.

AMANPOUR: David Sanger, thank you very much indeed.


AMANPOUR: America's drone attacks have sometimes led to what the military calls collateral damage -- unintended victims. But in Syria from the very beginning of the uprising, the Assad regime has deliberately targeted children. We examine the hard evidence that could lead to international criminal prosecutions when we return.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program, where we want to update you on some of the most important stories that we've covering over the past few months.

Nadim Houry and Robert King have dedicated themselves to documenting events in Syria. Houry works for Human Rights Watch, collecting evidence of Assad regime violence.

Robert King is an eyewitness to the violence as a photojournalist and he's been recording devastating images of child victims.

I spoke to him as news of the first massacres in Syria started to filter out.


AMANPOUR: Robert King, thank you very much for joining me.

ROBERT KING, PHOTOJOURNALIST: Thank you so much, Christiane, for having me on your show.

AMANPOUR: We have seen these amazing pictures that you have sent out of Syria, and you've been filming for more than a month there. Some of them, to be frank, we can barely look at, and we can hardly air because they are so grim. What must it be like to actually witness that yourself and try to do the job that you're doing?

KING: It was hard, it was discouraging, like you said, there was very little footage that I made that could get aired. But I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't make art out of this -- the suffering. And I tried to compose it in a humanistic way.

It was -- it was tough, you know, I wasn't going to break down inside the hospital, but I -- it was hard to keep your wits.

AMANPOUR: You've seen the worst of the worst, how they can possibly be targeting these children. How does this compare with other places that you've been, that I've been, Bosnia and other such places?

KING: I've never seen anything like it. I mean, it's the butcher of Syria. He's targeting civilians. I've never photographed so many wounded kids. In one small village that would, you know, really, I think, represents what's going on all across the country. In 20 years, I've not photographed so many wounded kids and the -- it seems like that a lot of the world is indifferent about these horrific crimes.

AMANPOUR: They've sat up and taken notice, your pictures have done it. The U.N. report has done it. They've now come out and said officially that this is targeting of children in a wholly inappropriate and illegal manner.

What did you hear from the doctors who you followed as well? Not only are there these terrible attacks on children, but is there the medical wherewithal to treat them?

KING: They do the best they can with what little supplies they have. And no, I mean, they learn as they go.

AMANPOUR: You spent a long time in that village of Qusayr. Why did they think that they were being targeted? What did the doctors tell you, the families tell you about why the civilians, why the children were being so badly injured?

KING: They assumed it was collective punishment. Then they were -- believe that it was because of their religious beliefs, that they were Sunni that they were being targeted. Not only -- and also because they were supporting the revolution. So you have this regime that's trying to kill the revolutionaries and they're trying to kill the offspring of the revolutionary and it's ethnic genocide.

AMANPOUR: And what else did you see when you were traveling for that month that you spent inside?

KING: It was terrible. You know, I would do stories on artists, and then he died. So a lot of the stories of, you know, the -- one day the -- one of the media center cameramen were killed.

That same day, two members of the media center had their brothers killed, just constant death and pain and suffering and, you know, and everyone's walking around with bloodstained shirts, you know, sleeping when you can, trying to not let the shells that are exploding intimidate you.

AMANPOUR: Did you get to talk to any government soldiers or government types? Did you get to ask them what they were doing and why there were doing it?

KING: Unfortunately not, you know, I wasn't able to speak to the Assad regime. I did photograph the Assad army that has taken over the main hospital in al-Qusayr, that may use it as a staging ground and a snipers' nest. But other than that, you know, I wasn't able to -- it's too dangerous.

AMANPOUR: So if they've taken over the main hospital, where did the doctor do his work?

KING: He works in a bombed-out house. It's a home that was -- where the -- a lot of it was destroyed by tank fire. So he's basically converted a couple bedrooms into a recovery center and operation center.

They use a 2" x 4" for, you know, to strap the arms down, to -- when they stick in their morphine or plasma bags or IVs. It's pretty grim and pretty gruesome. You know, I don't even know -- and they use a desk lamp to illuminate the operating room.

They have some type of tool that heats up and cuts through skin, but they have to plug it in and sometimes the electricity goes off, so they have to run it on a generator.

AMANPOUR: Well, your pictures really do paint the horrific image of what's happening inside Syria. Thank you very much for being with me today, Robert.

KING: Well, thank you so much, Christiane. I enjoyed it --


AMANPOUR: And now to someone who's also been documenting atrocities in Syria, but from a legal perspective, Nadim Houry is a former corporate lawyer at one of New York's most prestigious law firms.

He's now, though, working for Human Rights Watch, gathering legal evidence for what one day may be a war crimes prosecution of the Assad regime. And he joined me a short time ago, also from Beirut.


AMANPOUR: Nadim Houry, thank you for joining me from Beirut.

NADIM HOURY, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: I recall the beginning of this conflict, almost starting with children, what outraged so many people was that children in Daraa were tortured, abducted, held.

Tell me what happened back then and the pattern of the use of children.

HOURY: What started the whole uprising was a detention of a group of young teenagers, who had been inspired by the Arab Spring and went and scribbled on some walls on their school, you know, "Down with the regime."

And it was the subsequent torture of these children and the way the head of one of the security agencies dealt with their parents when they came asking for the, you know, for their children, to see them, that sparked the whole thing.

And that pattern of sort of detaining anyone, be it a child who's 12 years old, detaining an elderly man who's 70, in one case we documented -- and torturing them, we've continued to see it. And this incredible violence is what's been the fuel of the protest movement, particularly in the first six months.

AMANPOUR: How do you go about gathering and documenting your evidence? Because of course Human Rights Watch put out a similar report much earlier than the U.N. report. How do you do the actual evidence gathering?

HOURY: Sure. In three key manners: one, we've got teams deployed at Syria's borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and we're there waiting for people who've escaped, people who've been detained and released and who make it to a neighboring country, to interview them in-depth.

Secondly, in areas, particularly in northern Syria, that are de facto under the control of the opposition, we were able to send some people who were able to cross over and visit some of these villages in Idlib and other parts.

And finally, we've been working on Syria for years, so we have an extensive network of activists, human rights activists, whom we know personally, whom we trust, who are key in helping us identifying cases and interviewing these victims inside Syria.

AMANPOUR: And is the pattern the same as you've been documenting since this struggle began? Or is it different now? Is it more complicated?

HOURY: The violation -- there appears some patterns are still the same. The arbitrary detention, the torture, the indiscriminate shelling that we just saw yesterday in Hama, that is still the same. But there's another part of the story that is more complicated.

This is the sort of increase in armed resistance. This is the slide of Syria into a sectarian conflict. And it's particularly complicated in places where you've got Alawite villages, Sunni villages next to each other. This is harder to document because, in addition to the regular security forces and the armed opposition, you have now the shabiha, these pro-government militias, increasingly active.

AMANPOUR: When you look at what happened in Houla, for instance, are you sure of who did what to whom?

HOURY: No, we're not sure, and this is why we called on the U.N. to investigate and to make that report public. And we obviously told the Russians, you say you care about the truth? So make sure there's an independent international investigation on the ground.

And guess what? There's one that was appointed last year by the Human Rights Council, but the Syrian government doesn't want to let them in. But what we can say is we spoke to three survivors from the Abdel Razzak family, whom had 60 members killed in al-Houla. But what they told us, the surviving witnesses, was that there were armed gunmen, who came and shot them, and that these armed gunmen were pro-government.

And when we asked them, well, how do you know they were pro- government, they said, because of the slogans they were shouting and because of the way they were talking to us.

You know, is this enough to indict them? No. Is it enough to push for an investigation? Definitely.

There's also a second element. If it was the opposition that committed these massacres, at least in Houla, why are most of these surviving members now, you know, sheltering with the opposition?

AMANPOUR: And finally, what do you think is going to be the pattern as this struggle continues, this fight?

HOURY: I think we're going to see -- there are going to be multiple conflicts inside Syria. There's going to be a pattern of what we've seen, sort of an armed conflict between armed guerillas for the opposition and an overwhelming military for the Syrian side.

And in the main cities, where the regime still can contain, you know, still has strong control on the ground, it's going to look like what it looked a year ago, activists trying to come out and protest through forms of civil resistance and basically security forces arresting them, disappearing them, and in many cases, beating and torturing them in detention.

AMANPOUR: Nadim Houry, thank you very much for joining me.

HOURY: Thank you for having me.


AMANPOUR: As much as we might want to turn away from the horrors in Syria, we owe it to the dead and to the living to bear witness.

But the rush to tell the story has its own perils. We'll look at one picture that comes with its cautionary tale when we return.



AMANPOUR: And finally, in Syria, we've witnessed the slaughter of many innocents. But imagine a world where the rush to tell the story makes it harder to tell the truth.

Perhaps you remember this photo. Back in May, the BBC published it just hours after more than 100 people were massacred in the Syrian town of Houla. But it was actually a photo taken nine years ago of dead children in Iraq. The BBC later replaced it with another accurate image. But the damage was done.

And yet it's crucial to remember that one mistake does not invalidate the overwhelming evidence confirmed by the United Nations of a terrible crime that did need no embellishment or of other atrocities that have followed in the months since.

The fact is that in a cyber-world where images and stories can be contradictory or even just false, there is a vital need for journalism, the unwavering commitment to get the story and get it right.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.